At a Movie Comedy, A Tragedy Unfolded

By Gloria Partida along with the boards of Team Davis and Davis Phoenix Coalition

The merits and evils of Facebook will undoubtedly be debated from many perspectives for many years. Recently, this snippet of humanity ran across my feed.

A family in Davis with a son having multiple disabilities sat in a movie theater on Christmas Day. The movie was a comedy; what unfolded off screen was a tragedy.

The father wrote that in response to his son’s vocalizations during the movie, a couple of young men strongly expressed their displeasure. When he informed them that his son had autism, the response received was, “I don’t care if he has autism, if he does, you shouldn’t have brought him to the movie theater.” To further the insult, one of the young men spat at the father’s feet on the way out.

Autism is described as “a lifelong disability that usually appears before a child is 3 years old. The disability has no known cure. Children are either born with the disorder or with the potential to develop the symptoms.

“Symptoms and characteristics appear in a wide variety of combinations ranging from mild to severe. Children and adults with autism are said to ‘be on the spectrum’ and the disability is referred to as autism spectrum disorder or ASD.”

Judging from this experience, spectrum disorders are not confined to autism but also to a far more debilitating disorder known as intolerance. Like autism, the symptoms appear in a wide variety of combinations, ranging from teasing that is dismissed with “I was only kidding,” to severe beatings and sometimes death.

Unfortunately, unlike autism, all children are born with the potential to develop the symptoms of intolerance. The cure is as debatable as the merits of Facebook.

The community of people with disabilities in Davis is a gem of unbounded ability and strength. This community is supported by a huge intersection of allies; family members, civic leaders, medical professionals, educators and casual observers all sharing the deep-seated knowledge that compassion is the glue of communal prosperity.

Its advocacy for the rights and respect of people with disabilities has contributed to full inclusion in our schools and city recreation programs that standards are set by. Our local Special Olympics program (Team Davis) has broken national records and, most importantly, has given people a place to cultivate pride and camaraderie. All of this is done with the underlying hope that our children will be seen as fellows rather than “others.”

And still, for all the advocacy, dialogue and awareness-raising exerted to prevent acts of intolerance, violence and misunderstandings, they continue to happen. Are we doing this all wrong? Is something missing? Have we reached activist fatigue?

This is where the debate around the cure becomes complicated, because intolerance is a living, breathing entity that mutates with each iteration of paradigm shifts to replicate in new generations.

We have long operated from a standpoint that if we understand, appreciate and “celebrate” our differences, we cannot commit acts of intolerance against our neighbors. We have tried to teach our children to respect each other and be kind. All good efforts.

The fallacy in this is that even if I did not understand my neighbor, I would not throw a brick through his or her window. True acts of intolerance and disrespect such as spitting at a father’s feet on Christmas Day come from other places.

One of those places is deficit. Deficit is not a word typically associated with Davis, but some of our children are clearly not having their needs met and the outcomes, as we have seen in current news stories, can be devastating.

A look at our school district website shows the response to this realization. Under the family tab of the DJUSD website there is clearly now a Crisis and Prevention link. Still, it is not readily found and has to be hunted and sought out. What to do about bullying is even further buried.

Compare this to the Sacramento Unified School District website, where support and engagement is front and center and under “Resources.” What to do about bullying is listed under almost any section you choose.

Is this because Sacramento has different problems in its school population or different priorities? Most likely a little of both. However, our tendency to behave as doting parents blinds us to the monster being created. This lack of objectivism will sink all of the potential we hold in such high esteem.

One of the best responses to the Facebook post was this: “… our ‘culture of excellence’ in Davis, whether it be for athletics or academics, is occasionally accompanied by a harsh underbelly of intolerance for anyone who needs extra help or falls outside our very narrow definition of achievement-focused normativity. Fierce competition and an absence of true inclusion can easily breed lack of compassion. All of which, in the end, hurts everybody.”

— Gloria Partida represents the Davis Phoenix Coalition board of directors. The Team Davis board includes Robin Dewey, Steve Nowicki, Kelly McDonald, Laura Hall, Bo Lonnerdal and Ann Reioux.

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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  1. Davis Progressive

    saw andy jones’ initial account in the bee.  i can’t really believe people are that insensitive to yell at a kid with autism, discriminate, and then basically have road rage in the theater by spitting.  is this really what we’ve come to?  my answer is no – the reaction to the piece shows that this is not where we’ve come too.

    1. hpierce

      ” i can’t really believe people are that insensitive to yell at a kid with autism, discriminate, and then basically have road rage in the theater by spitting.”  The behaviors were wrong and reprehensible, agreed.


      Should parents with a young child with colic, crying and screaming, expect to attend a movie in a theater where everyone has paid a good chunk of change to expect a certain experience, believe that all the other patrons should celebrate their experience of hearing the collicky child screaming/crying throughout the movie?  Would it be wrong of those patrons to feel they had been short-changed?

      Understandably, it was NOT reported as to the nature, volume, nor prevalence of the child’s vocalizations, nor whether the parents had reasonable cause to believe that their child would disrupt the movie for others.  Or should we, to be “compassionate”, be expected to patiently deal with anything, anytime if someone has a ‘challenge’ or disability?  It, understandably, also is not reported what actions, if any, the parents did to mitigate the effects of the ‘vocalizations’ on others.  Am guessing that the parents let the child “do their thing”, not wanting to have the child feel ‘less’.

      The behavior of the other patrons cited was reprehensible, PERIOD.  However, there seems to also be some self-righteousness going on.

      1. Davis Progressive

        The behavior of the other patrons cited was reprehensible, PERIOD.  However, there seems to also be some self-righteousness going on.

        it was a comedy, it’s a movie, if there was some self-righteousness going on it was perhaps as a result of the indignity suffered.

        1. hpierce

          Ok, you’re right.  Should have used the term ‘righteous indignation’.
          After all, the parents had NO responsibility to deal with their child’s behaviors. Only the mean kids had the obligation to control their behavior. Which they didn’t, and THAT was reprehensible.

      2. Eric Gelber

        Here’s what the Sac Bee article said about this, as related by the parent:

        Because of our tight bond, I can persuade Jukie to keep quiet during a performance. And while there have been times when I’ve had to rush my son out of a film or play (sorry about that, Davis Shakespeare Ensemble), on Christmas Day, his behavior was exemplary in a Davis theater filled with noisy children to see “Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb.”

        When the crowd laughed, Jukie clucked. When the crowd guffawed, he vocalized like someone singing to himself and kissed my hand. He was having a ball, and the adults near us – we sat in the back row – saw Jukie and smiled back at us.

        The child here is a 14-year-old boy attending a family film with his family, in a theater filled with other noisy children. Because of his autism, his reactions and vocalizations were probably atypical, which may have drawn attention. The comparison to a colicky baby is inappropriate. It’s this youth’s right to participate in age-appropriate community activities that is at issue here. Referring to those who facilitate and support the right of people with disabilities to inclusion as “self-righteous” reflects the intolerance that is the real problem here. As the saying goes: “Attitudes are the real disability.”


        Read more here:

        1. hpierce

          Thank you for the clarification… I was going by what was obvious (now) was a synopsis by the Vanguard.  It was VERY unclear from what I read here what the history of the child and what the parents’ efforts had been.  Had I seen that information (which you provided), rest assured I would not have written what I did.  I stand by part of what I wrote, as to the reaction by some of the patrons as reprehensible.

        2. South of Davis

          I agree with hpierce that “The behavior of the other patrons cited was reprehensible, PERIOD”, but when I read the full Bee article a lot of things didn’t seem to make sense (I got the same feeling as when I read the Rolling Stone UVA rape story for the first time)

          When was the last time that anyone saw “two muscle-bound men in their 20s, wearing buzz-cuts and baseball caps” at the movies with their parents?

          Assuming there were “muscle-bound men in their 20s, wearing buzz-cuts” at a PG movie with their parents on Christmas I bet it took a LOT more than having an autistic kid “cluckle when the crowd guffawed” to push them over the line where they were mixing it up with a guy and spitting at him with their (embarrassed) parents nearby.

  2. MrsW

    A look at our school district website shows the response to this realization. Under the family tab of the DJUSD website there is clearly now a Crisis and Prevention link. Still, it is not readily found and has to be hunted and sought out. What to do about bullying is even further buried.

    Within this article is yet another plea to DJUSD to address the social curriculum taught in our schools.  Not a one-time or even an annual “bullying assembly,” not the School Climate Committee meetings where the adults get a report on what the Leadership Class is doing for Friendship Day, but the day-in and day-out climate of intolerance created by a “…very narrow definition of achievement-focused normativity.” Is anyone at DJUSD listening?

    1. hpierce

      I’d rather “bully” the parents to teach their children tolerance.  I do not trust the schools to do so.  Am concerned that they would teach the children how to tolerate “bullies”.  The only proven methods to stop bullying is to confront the bullies and intimidate them worse than they ever imagined.  Bullies are almost always cowards at heart (except true socio-paths).  Public shaming can work well for turning around garden variety bullies.

      And, perhaps their parents… maybe we could run “bully of the week” pieces in local media to shame (name names) the bullies AND their parents. That actually might work, and if not, it would at least alert kids as to who might be dangerous to engage with.

        1. MrsW

          Teaching children how to treat other people respectfully should be taught both at home and re-enforced at school and vice-versa.  Like all training, it should be consistent. The consistency should be every day, all day. Given the amount of time a child spends at school, only getting tolerance lessons at school is better than zero. Same goes for home.

  3. Miwok


    : a very bad event that causes great sadness and often involves someone’s death

    : a very sad, unfortunate, or upsetting situation : something that causes strong feelings of sadness or regret
    : a play, movie, etc., that is serious and has a sad ending (such as the death of the main character)

    Is the rhetoric going to elevate something like this to that level?

    I don’t think the parents have any regret. They created the situation. I hope the spitter has some sadness, for overreacting. I usually go to the manager and ask for my money back. A restaurant or theater, like a Sports Bar or high school is full of adults who never grew up anyway. Expecting a quiet meal or theater experience was lost long ago, I just quit going.

    1. hpierce

      Don’t  know if you saw Eric Gelber’s 12:56 post.  My first reaction [to the VG story, and the op-ed in the Emptyprize] was very similar to yours.  After reading Eric’s post, it seems that the parents did not intend to “create” a situation, and were trying to help their son ‘fit in’.  Been there, done that, and not all my attempts were successful either.

      “tragedy” is more than a little “melodramatic”, to be sure.  And, more than a bit “self-righteous”.

      1. Miwok

        Just read it, thank you, hpierce. I like that explanation, and stand by what I said, about the parents creating a situation. The parent mentions she has had different experiences on different days, which is what I expect when I take any child to a public place. I also fully expect to get them out of there once I feel they are annoying or disrupting others.

        Maybe the parents have, and I would have expected them to,  start with small groups at home or family only outings, with other kids, to acclimate said Autistic kid to conditions.

        When they take a kid like that to a place with hundreds of people it can be disconcerting. Why not take the child to a movie with a bunch of family and friends, surround him with the familiar love he already knows? This story does not sound like they do this. If he was 14, they should have working since birth to do this for any kid. Sometimes Special Needs kids are pampered when they really need extra care and training instead of excuses.

        Disclaimer: My sister has a Special Needs Child.

  4. Frankly

    I know the family and the story and it was very disheartening the first time I read it.  But I rarely go to the movies for reasons that I am easily bothered by noises and movements around me.  I know this about myself… I am hypersensitive to out of the ordinary distractions when I am engrossed in a move.  It is why I have a great big 3D HD TV and surround system at home.

    In that rare case when I did go out to see a movie, I would likely not comment about a crying baby or a child making strange noises; but certainly if I did, being told that the child had autism would be more than enough of an explanation to cause me to apologize to the parents and smile at the child.

    There is a solution to this problem, and one that would get people like me back to the theater… put headphone connections at each seat (BYOH) to use as an option.

    Now for your little darling that keeps kicking the back of my seat, I’m sorry but you have to solve that problem.

  5. DavisBurns

    The young men behaved badly, no doubt.

    Typical vocalization would be words or sounds that the neurotypical (NT) community might be thinking or feeling but are able to repress. Most of us make noise at the movies.  We laugh when it’s funny, exclaim when something exciting happens…this kid just didn’t laugh when the audience laughed, he responded differently and because it was different, social norms say it was inappropriate. No one complains about conformity. All kids need a variety of social experiences. This kid deserves to have the experience of going to a movie.

    Generally, parents with kids on the spectrum are very sensitive about their children’s behavior.  They put a lot of effort into preparing  their children as to what to expect and how to behave and are careful about which showing they attended. After that experience, I expect these parents will feel even greater reluctance to take their son to the movies again.

    Appropriate vocalization is one of our most compelling methods of socialization. We are taught not to interrupt, not to speak out of turn, not to make noise when the group imposes silence, not use certain words and not to make bodily noises in public. We are much more tolerant of visual impropriety because we can look away. Think of someone with bad table manners; it’s tolerable unless smacking is involved. Autistic children don’t learn social norms without direct instruction and social isolation is usually the most difficult aspect of their disability.

    We allow people with other handicaps to have this experience. We install special seating for those with mobility limitations.  The question is, what kind of accomodations does this person need?  You can say that handicapped parking spaces inconvenience other drivers by not allowing them to park where they want.  Seems like these guys couldn’t sit where they wanted.

    We don’t know the details–how loud he was and how frequent the vocalizations but perhaps the cinema might give theses two men a refund or give them tickets to see the show at a different time if they had complained but apparently, they watched the whole movie so it seems they were annoyed but not prevented from watching the movie. I have been annoyed by the person behind me kicking the back of my seat but that didn’t prevent me from watching the movie. I’d be interested in other opinions.

  6. ryankelly

    If I go to a “Children and Family” movie during the day, especially a holiday, or even early evening, I expect to be interrupted.  But I’m a parent.   The laughing and exclamations by children are part of the experience, really.  I have sat through a small child kicking my chair and then listen to a parent apologize with me reassuring them that it is not a problem.  But I’m a parent.   If I don’t want this, I go to the latest show, with the expectation that the audience will be older.  I am easily distracted by noise and movement in a theater (the slow crinkling of candy wrappers during a super quiet, intense moment in a movie really irritates me for some reason), so I often wait until the movie has been out for a while and the audiences will be smaller.  I have personally asked adults to take their feet off of the back of my chair, asked someone to stop talking, and even once to stop texting, but I have never felt it necessary to ask a parent to remove a child who was watching and reacting to the movie appropriately.  From the description by the boy’s parent, it sounds like the child was singing and clucking.  That would be unusual, but, again, at a kid’s movie during the day on a holiday, I would be more patient with it, without requiring that I know that this was a symptom of a disability.  I think it would have been obvious, really.  But I’m a parent.

    I’m sorry that this was this family’s experience, but, in my experience, it is not typical for Davis.

  7. Alan Miller

    ” . . . our ‘culture of excellence’ in Davis . . . is occasionally accompanied by a harsh underbelly of intolerance.”

    The father ran into some assholes.  There have always been assholes, there will always be assholes.  Especially young male assholes.

    I am disturbed by the implication that this has something to do with Davis culture.  If Davis had a law prohibiting the autistic in restaurants and movie theatres, I would demand a change.  If gangs roamed the streets of Davis beating the autistic, we would have a cultural problem.

    Decent persons will find the incident disturbing.  However, one cannot cure assholes by blaming some nebulous concept of culture, and the assholes aren’t reading the newspaper anyway.  You can’t educate such assholes, they will heckle the lecture.  We, as individuals, can strive to be decent human beings and may inspire others if they find the example attractive.  We cannot change assholes into roses.

    Sometimes in life, we run into assholes.

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